The Orthodox Church & the Gospel of James

by HD Livingston

The Gospel of James (also called the Infancy Gospel or Protoevangelium of James) was written in the mid-second century under the name of James, the brother of Jesus. It focuses on the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and culminates with Jesus' birth. Although it shares some views consistent with what would become the orthodoxy (from the Greek meaning "right belief"), it was ultimately not included in the New Testament when it was canonized in the fourth century. Today, the Orthodox Church in America includes some aspects of the text in its doctrine of Mary.

The Purity of Mary

One of the questions the Gospel of James sought to answer was why Mary was chosen to bear the son of God. The gospel explains this by asserting that Mary was the most pure woman in Israel. According to the gospel, she was born miraculously to Anna, who had been told she could not bear a child. In gratitude, Anna and her husband Joachim dedicated Mary to a life of service to God. They first made Mary's bedroom into a sanctuary where she remained in seclusion until she was three. She was then taken to live in the Jerusalem Temple where she was fed by the hand of an angel. Although it is not corroborated in any biblical texts, the Orthodox Church acknowledges the significance of this account of the righteousness of Mary's parents and Mary's miraculous birth. This is celebrated as the annual Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8.

Mary's Perpetual Virginity

According to the gospel, when Mary turned 12, she was given in marriage to an elderly widower named Joseph, who was instructed to keep her chaste. Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit while Joseph was out of town. In addition to her virgin conception, the gospel states that Mary remained physically intact (as confirmed by midwives) even after Jesus' birth. Mary's perpetual virginity would become important in later Christian orthodoxy, particularly in association with the doctrine of assumption. This asserts that Mary did not die but ascended into heaven as a result of the fact that she had never sinned. The Feast of the Assumption (or Dormition of the Theotokos) is celebrated on August 15 by the Orthodox Church.

Jesus' Birth

In addition to providing details of Mary's life that asserted her sanctity, the Gospel of James also discusses Jesus' birth in ways that are compatible with what would become the viewpoint of the Orthodox Church. For example, Jesus was portrayed as the son of God from birth. This was in contrast to the beliefs of groups such as the Marcionites, who asserted that Jesus had descended from heaven as an adult. Additionally, the Gospel of James' depiction of Mary and Joseph's relationship as entirely chaste is in contrast to groups like the Ebionites, who understood Jesus to be the adopted son of God but the biological son of Mary and Joseph. That Jesus is actually the son of God is an important part of Orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

Jesus' Siblings

Given that much of the gospel's assertions align with Proto-Orthodox beliefs, it is perhaps surprising that the text was ultimately condemned. This was partially as a result of the portrayal of Jesus having brothers who were Joseph's children from a previous marriage. Although Jesus' brothers are mentioned in the New Testament (for example, Mark 6:3), the most influential Christian scholar of the fourth century, St. Jerome, insisted that these were cousins, not step-brothers. The centrality of Jesus' brothers in the Gospel of James (including the assertion of authorship by James) was troubling enough to Jerome that he advocated for its rejection. The Orthodox Church's doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity results in it rejecting the notion that Jesus had any siblings. Most Orthodox theologians agree with Jerome and see the term "brothers" as implying a relationship other than biological siblings (or step-siblings). Thus, while the Gospel of James provides evidence for Mary's birth, its depiction of Jesus with siblings is not part of Orthodox doctrine.

About the Author

HD Livingston has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Manitoba. She is also completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.

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